I think I’m going to have to make my peace with Japanese SF, or at least the kind of Japanese SF that’s most easily available in translation. It does so very often exhibit almost perfectly the archetypal strengths and weaknesses ascribed to the genre: strong conceptual explorations, interesting ideas, minimal characterization, woeful prose.
“Mark thinks he has a soft spot for Asian women,” Commander Kindersley commented with a grin, “I’m not sure Asian Women agree. I remember a pin-up of a Korean actress that he kept in a locker with a– ”
“Commander,” Mark interrupted, “let’s categorize that as classified information.”
And of course there’s nothing like suspect racial and sexual objectification to make uptight female scientist types weak at the knees –
…Aki wondered if anyone else could tell that she was feeling slightly flustered by Mark’s presence.
Just his presence! That’s all it takes to get Little Miss Intellectual hot under the collar and all wet downstairs. And then, nothing. They set off on a months long journey which is elided in a couple of sentences and is all terribly formal and professional with no hanky-panky of any kind until Mark gets himself killed in a such a perfunctory and pointless act of self-sacrifice that mentioning it doesn’t even count as a spoiler. Sarcasm aside, I suppose it is vaguely refreshing to see a male character get fridged but Aki’s reaction, as she floats millions of miles away from home in the shadow of an unfathomably monstrous alien artifact which is inexorably destroying her entire species and planet and has just exterminated the one person who ever made her feel even just slightly tingly in her implacably glacial science-minge, is, well… this –
Aki regretted being on the ship and on the mission.
Heart-rending stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Fortunately in the aftermath of this little escapade any suggestions of emotions or feelings are given a wide berth (apart from sporadic angst from Aki over some unfortunate genocide business) and we can get down the meat and potatoes of the book, which is a very proficient if not particularly original Hard SF first contact story. This means grindingly ponderous exposition as dialogue and page after page of shockingly bald prose description of concepts and ideas, which is good, because when it does try to get a little fancy we get stuff like this –
The exact mechanism that allowed the new code to infect the Builders’ automated production facilities was poorly understood. Not unlike how burning moxma to warm regions and acupuncture points of the body stimulates circulation and finds a way to smooth the flow of blood and qi throughout the body, the mechanism of the code was elusive but effective. A blog compared the success, especially with the incomplete analysis of the mechagenetics, to being as statistically unlikely as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle being thrown into the air and randomly assembling themselves into the proper picture as the pieces landed.
This is a brutalizing one-two of leaden simile like the likes of which I’ve never before experienced. Not content with setting you stumbling punch-drunk with some lumpen acupuncture handwavium, it then ploughs in again with a deadly mechagenetic jigsaw follow-through to send your sensibilities crashing to the floor, its clumsy force spraying loose teeth and spittle across the ring in such a way that not even the risible delegation of responsibility to ‘a blog’ can soften the landing.
But the ideas are, when all’s said and done, pretty effectively handled. For every instance of excessively dry and detailed description there are any number of examples of quite complex notions just being dropped in to the flow of things for the reader to deal with. Nojiri certainly can’t be accused of patronising or pandering to his audience; you cope with it or you don’t, just try to keep up. Most importantly, the contact when it does come is gratifyingly alien. No human actors in green rubber suits; these others are wholly, truly, genuinely other and that, in all fairness, is pretty rare in a genre where more often than not the ‘aliens’ are all too recognizably human. Usurper of the Sun is very far from perfect, but on its own terms in inhabits the little niche it seeks to claim for itself surprisingly well indeed.